Der Himmel über Berlin

(Wings of Desire, Germany 1987)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Genre: Drama
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Composer: Jurgen Knieper
Runtime: 127 minutes

"When the child was a child, it was time for these questions: Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?".
This is probably Wim Wenders' most fascinating work. It deals with the fact we take the simple things we do every day for granted and don't enjoy them or respect them as much as we should. The angel Damiel, beautifully played by Bruno Ganz, is tired of the passivity of living other people's lives without the possibility of living his own. He's tired of the monotony, of the fact that angels live forever, know everything, and aren't surprised by anything. He wants to experience the many things they can't such as the feel of your own weight, hot and cold, and the taste of a simple drink like coffee. Damiel is frustrated to the point he wants to become mortal, to leave this "world" that doesn't satisfy him anymore and try a new one.

In addition to the longing for what he can't have and do, he gives up his wings for two people. The first is a trapeze artist named Marion played by Wim Wenders regular Solveig Dommartin. He feels attached to her and believes she will teach him everything. The other is someone who understands him, who feels his pain. He is even able to recognize Damiel, to feel his presence even though he can't see him. This is "Lieutenant Columbo" Peter Falk playing himself.

Wings of Desire is a very difficult film for the average moviegoer to enjoy because there's no plot. It's all about living, both as an angel does and as a human being does. There isn't a predictable or natural progression to the events. What this film lacks in plot, it makes up for with beautiful symbolism. Simple techniques like using black and white for the angels' POV portrays the incomplete world they wander, able to see everything but not fully understand it, taste it, LIVE it like mortals. Due to this, color is used to show the mortals perspective.

The difficult aspect of Bruno Ganz' portrayal of Damiel is he's forced to portray and convey emotions at all times while 3/4 of the movie's dialogue is an off-screen voice that represents people's thoughts. He does so in such an effective way; take for example, the first time he realizes he's "mortal" and tastes his own blood. Also, the first time he drinks coffee and feels the cold German weather. He looks like a child ready to explore the world. The scene where he stops someone and starts asking questions like "Is it cold today?" or "What color is that?" just emphasizes this.

Peter Falk's performance is really good. He has a sense of understanding. From the beginning we feel he's really different and wise enough to understand the angels. When the "big" revelation happens, it's not as shocking as you'd suppose it might be because of the way he smartly plays himself. Wenders focuses on messages and symbolism more than fast pace and crisp dialogue. It's more about the images and the feeling behind them than the words.

There's also a subplot involving German's condition during the Wall era. An old man tries to find a place where he used to hang out with his friends. He remembers things, little touches about it, but only comes close to discovering it. They lead him near the wall, where the explanation lies.

Sadly, this masterpiece got the "honor" of a Hollywood remake in the pathetic "City of Angels." Every bit of subtlety and the beauty of the world created here by Wenders dies here in favor of the usual three-act romantic Hollywood crap. It's not surprising because Wings of Desire is one of the most difficult movies to enjoy if you're not open enough to understand its beautiful messages. If you are, it's so fascinating because of the simply yet tremendously effective way the film is constructed.




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